Ferrari's sports car return: out to avenge 312PB's crushing defeat

Sports Car News

Ferrari's return to top-level sports car racing comes 50 years after its last works effort — the astounding Ferrari 312PB. But it didn't bow out of competition in the way that it arguably deserved...

DPPI Ferrari Jacky Ickx 1973 WEC Le Mans

Ferrari 312PB – seen here with Jacky Ickx at the wheel at Le Mans in 1973 – represented Ferrari on top of its sports car game


Is it a coincidence that Ferrari’s most successful period in sports car racing coincided with one of its least successful times in Formula 1? Certainly if you look at Ferrari’s fortunes in grand prix racing after it quit the sports car scene at the end of 1973, there seems to be a case to be made. In 1973 there was not a single F1 podium finish in 15 rounds, and a grand total of three points – three – from the last 12 races of the season resulting in sixth place in the Constructors’ Championship. The following year without a sports car team to to support? Three wins, eleven podiums and P2 in the Constructors’ followed by outright championship wins for the next three years on the trot. Ferrari had learned you could no longer fight at the top level on two different fronts as it had in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Until now that is. For the Scuderia the F1 cost cap, the reduced cost of sports car racing and the imperative not to lose staff to rival outfits have made a return to sports car racing not merely viable for the first time in half a century, but actively desirable. And, so far, it has gone well. Despite being apparently nowhere in testing, Ferrari’s new 499P LMH sports cars lined up first and fourth for the Sebring 1000km– the opening round of this year’s World Endurance Championship – and ended up with one of the cars on the podium. Not bad after 50 years away.

But then Ferrari really must do well, because the car that closed its account back in 1973 was one of the most successful sports racing cars there had ever been, a car so fast and so advanced it used up resources that the grand prix team could well have benefitted from.

DPPI Ferrari Giunti 1971 WEC Buenos Aires

Giunti driving the Ferrari 312PB on its ’71 debut at Buenos Aires


The car made its debut in 1971 and is known as the 312PB, so as to distinguish it from the very different and far less successful 1969 312P. It used Mauro Forghieri’s new flat 12 engine developed primarily for F1, developing a range of outputs depending on intended purpose: as much as 480bhp for sprint races, as little as 405bhp for Le Mans. But throughout that season the car remained winless. Partly that was to be expected given it was a 3-litre car competing in a 5-litre formula where it stood little chance of outgunning the by now thoroughly-developed Porsche 917. Only at the Nürburgring, where the 917s were deemed too unmanageable to enter, was a hint of what was to come provided, Jacky Ickx’s pole time being nine seconds clear of Rolf Stommelen’s similarly light and powerful Alfa T33 in second place. Jacky and co-driver Clay Regazzoni were in a one car race until the engine overheated.

But 1972, and with the 5-litre cars outlawed, proved rather different. I won’t dwell on it because for anyone other than a Ferrari fan it was an excruciatingly boring eleven-round season. In short however the 312PB won ten and only missed the clean sweep because worries about long term reliability meant the team ducked out of Le Mans. The race was won by Matra taking the diametrically opposed approach, throwing the entire season to pile all its efforts into winning on home soil, having been trying to win the race since 1966.

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Which neatly brings us to 1973, the only season in which Matra and Ferrari competed for outright victory from start to finish. Who won? Well we know what it says on paper, but I think I’ll let you decide if there is more to it than that.

Ferrari used the 312PB again, with mild modifications, mainly in the aerodynamic areas. Budgets were tighter now and for most races just two chassis would be used. Matra? Save at the season-opening Daytona 24hrs which Ferrari didn’t enter and the only Matra broke, it used the ‘B’ specification of the MS670, complete with own F1-derived 3-litre V12 engine, probably the engine most frequently named the best-sounding in history.

The season proper started at Vallelunga and while the French and Italian cars were well matched, a somewhat different approach to drivers was taken. For Matra that season and with one exception later in the year, it didn’t matter how good you were, if you weren’t French, you weren’t driving. It paired Henri Pescarolo with Gérard Larrousse, François Cevert with Jean-Pierre Beltoise while Ferrari teamed Jacky Ickx with Brian Redman, Arturo Merzario with Carlos Pace and Tim Schenken with Carlos Reutemann – just one Italian among six drivers.

DPPI Ferrari Jacky Ickx 1973 WEC VALLELUNGA

Vallelunga was start of titanic Ferrari/Matra battle


It was a close run thing, Cevert’s qualifying time of 1.5sec faster than the best Ferrari, saying more about its qualifying tyres than anything else. The remaining Ferraris and Matras were separated by 0.8sec from fastest to slowest. Ferrari had the edge on power, but the Matras handled the tight Italian circuit better. And while one Matra threw a rod the other won, but with a fleet of Ferraris in second, third and fourth places. Battle was joined.

Both teams only sent a brace of cars to Dijon where the finishing order was blue, red, blue, red but with Cevert claiming both pole and fastest lap on home territory. He did the same at Monza, but by the time the flag fell for the last time, it was with Ferraris in first and second places to predictable delirium from the tifosi.

At Spa Ickx was on the form of his life, his 3min 12.7sec pole lap turning out to be the fastest that would ever be completed at the circuit in its lethal old configuration – that’s almost two seconds quicker even than a 5-litre Porsche 917 ever went there, and a lap average of over 163mph. Even Pesca had no answer for that, while Chris Amon and Graham Hill, parachuted into to deputise for Cevert and Beltoise who were off racing in F2, were over six seconds off the flying Belgian’s pace. In the end it was all for practically nothing: unreliability plagued both teams leaving a surprised and delighted Mirage team to romp home first and second, pursued at a distance by the sole surviving Matra and Ferrari in that order.

We’ll gloss over the Targa Florio which Matra didn’t enter and Ferrari didn’t finish but note that the Scuderia could not have had a better weekend at the Nürburgring, where both Matras failed and the 312PBs came home first and second, four laps – over 50 miles – ahead of the best of the rest.

At Le Mans three Ferraris met four Matras, with a front row lock out for the red cars. Merzario was told he was the hare and to go and break the Matras, but having built up a huge lead over three hours, a fuel leak pushed the car back down the order, leaving three Matras in front which then started having punctures. Two retired and by midnight Schenken and Reutemann were leading in their Ferrari. Whose engine promptly ate itself.

The race boiled down to a battle between the Ickx/Redman Ferrari and the Pescarolo/Larrousse Matra. It played out over most of Sunday but just when it looked like Ickx was going to reprise his 1969 hair’s-breadth win for Ford, its engine gave up with barely 30 minutes remaining. Pesca took the flag with, ironically, Merzario in the expendable hare coming home second.

DPPI Ferrari Arturio Merzario 1973 WEC Le Mans

Merzario scampers off at Le Mans ’73 – Matra would win after Ickx broke down

Just two more rounds remained, at the Osterreichring and Watkins Glen. Pescarolo and Larrousse won both, a sister car coming second in Austria and a Ferrari third, two Ferraris completing the podium at the Glen. And because the intended final round in Buenos Aires was cancelled, that was that.

When the points were tallied, Ferrari had scored 137 and Matra just 124. Which would have been the perfect way for the Scuderia to bow out of sports car racing save for one small point. In that season it could only keep the points from seven of the ten rounds. Matra, which had only scored in seven, kept the lot. Ferrari by contrast had scored in more, so had to drop points from its worst points-scoring finishes. When the maths was done, Matra stayed on 124, Ferrari dropped to 115. Matra were the champions.

Was it unfair? Possibly, but rules, as is said, is rules. I’d also point out that Matra won five races that season, Ferrari just two. The Scuderia would have to wait half a century for another tilt at the title.